In black and white

Mar 07, 2016, 08:25 IST | Dipanjan Sinha

Writer and historian William Dalrymple turns photographer with a book of black and white images from across Asia

Two years ago, after the release of his book Return Of A King, William Dalrymple embarked on a journey to seek new stories. He travelled extensively in Iran, Afghanistan, Ladakh and Central Asia, writing articles as usual and while at it, capturing moments he came across with his Samsung Note.

Images from The Writer's Eye by William Dalrymple, published by HarperCollins India

These photos were not just part of the writer's note to jog his memory and extract nuances when he would settle down to write. It was the return of an artistic expression that had been subdued for decades with writing becoming his artistic outlet and career.

In focus
“I have taken photographs since I was first given a tiny Kodak for my seventh birthday, but when I was 15, I was left some money by a relative, and so, I spent it on a fabulous Contax 35mm SLR with a pin-sharp Carl Zeiss T* lens,” recalls Dalrymple over the phonelines from Delhi. This marked the beginning of his journey as a photographer, which he would later abandon. “For the next five years, I spent much of my time in the school dark room, emerging after hours, stinking of fixer, with water-logged hands, and developer splashed all over my clothes, but clutching a precious sheaf of 10x8 prints,” he reveals.

In fact, he was led into journalism while writing a review of a show of British photographer, Fay Godwin, for his student paper at Cambridge. Like Godwin, Dalrymple, too, has liking for the black and white medium. “I always preferred black and white, partly because it allowed me to develop and edit my prints; but mainly because black and white seemed like a much more daring and exciting world, full of artistic possibilities,” he says. And now, in a world bombarded with coloured photographs, black and white, he feels, “stands out from the mass of coloured chaos.” But curiously, he does use the instrument greatly responsible for this chaos as his tool — a cell phone.

Shoot at sight
“The best moments for a photograph emerge when you are least prepared. With a phone, you almost never miss a shot. To add to that, it gives you a sort of inconspicuous quality; you can sneak in and out without your subject becoming aware, like when you are carrying a bulky SLR. Increasingly, it is becoming an extension of the eye,” he says.

He points out that there are limitations of the device, like one cannot take more wide-angle shots with it. “But if the image is a success, no one can attribute it to fancy equipment,” he says.

In a note, he writes “...sometimes, with luck, a photograph can reveal a different side to a writer's character and vision to the one revealed in their texts.” Selections of the photos that have been shared also throw up surprises. One can instantly relate to Dalrymple and architecture — tombs and towers — but some of the photos, true to his words, show a different side of his persona — his interest in skies scattered with birds and dark clouds bulging down on a solitary dog.

William Dalrymple
William Dalrymple

“I spend a lot of time walking and trekking, and these images are from such long walks. I would be pleased if it surprises people who look at them,” he signs off.

Curated by writer and Sensorium Festival co-founder, Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi, The Writer’s Eye opens at Sunaparanta: Goa Centre for the Arts on March 18 in Goa, Vadehra Art Gallery on March 29 in Delhi and the Grosvenor Gallery in London in June

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